More than three decades ago, Patrick Ewing fell into New York Knicks‘ lap with a stroke of luck in the 1985 Draft Lottery.
Ewing’s star had the staying power that made the Knicks relevant in the 90s.
Ewing had been the face of the Knicks for already a decade when Tom Thibodeau, a young and a rising star assistant coach in the NBA, joined Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching staff.
Thibodeau saw up close Ewing’s blue-collar approach to the game. He was there at Van Gundy’s side when the Knicks 1997 season crumbled with Ewing suffering a career-threatening wrist injury. Thibodeau saw how Ewing survived that fall and rebounded, leading the Knicks to a Cinderella run — becoming the first eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals — two years later during the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
More than two decades later, Thibodeau found his way back to New York, this time at the helm of an incredible rise from seven long years of misery.
Thibodeau has brought New York basketball back on the map. He’s made the Knicks relevant again like the Ewing-led teams in the good old days in the 90s.
Thibodeau found his Ewing in Julius Randle, a 6-foot-8 bruiser that has evolved into a sweet shooter and undisputed leader.
Randle’s combination of bully ball and sweet stroke from the perimeter is currently leading a nine-game winning streak, the franchise’s second-best stretch in the last 25 years.
Before Thibodeau took the Knicks coaching job, he laid out his blueprint on The Platform podcast in May last year.
“How you build a culture is you have to sell your vision to your best players and your best players have to sell it to the rest of the team,” Thibodeau said. “Your first meeting is the most important meeting of the year. You have to begin with the end in mind. What wins in the playoffs, these are the things that you have to do, building habits.”
Culture is the buzzword that hasn’t been associated with the Knicks since the 90s. Not even the brief success they’ve had with Carmelo Anthony at the beginning of the last decade had a culture set in place. It was tumultuous at times. Dysfunction blurred the Knicks’ vision.
Thibodeau changed everything right on his first meeting.
He sized up Randle. He came away impressed. And that set the tone for the amazing season the Knicks are having.
Thibodeau was sold on Randle as the team’s best player. He sold his vision to him, and all the rest followed like dominoes.
“It always starts with your best players,” Thibodeau said after the Knicks beat the Toronto Raptors for their league-best ninth straight win. “If they work like that and it sets the tone for the team. He’s relentless. It’s not an accident that he’s having the type of season that he’s having. His commitment — I saw see it from the moment I met him how committed he was in turning this around.”
A year ago, Randle was the most vilified Knicks player. The fan base was ready to move on from him when the Knicks front office took the slam-dunking Obi Toppin with their eighth pick in the Draft.
But as it turned out, the Knicks were not as ready as their fans to move on from Randle. In fact, the new front office led by Leon Rose, who is close to Randle’s CAA agent Aaron Mintz, was planning to hand the keys to the enigmatic forward.
When Knick’s new VP and senior advisor William Wesley aka World Wide Wes, called up Randle to ask his input on the coaching search, it was clear Randle’s words carried weight like the stars in the league.
That seminal moment empowered Randle’s incredible turnaround, which mirrored the Knicks’ success this season. No one saw it coming except for Randle, Thibodeau, and the front office.
Randle asked for a coach who will make him accountable. He got it.
Just like when Randle came to New York, Thibodeau’s return to the Knicks organization was met with mixed reactions after his flameout in his last stop in Minnesota.
But it took two polarizing figures — Randle and Thibodeau — to galvanize a Knicks team that looked lost for years.
“I think it’s critical for success, and I saw that right away,” Thibodeau said when asked to comment on Randle seeking accountability. “I asked him when I first got hired to come in for a few days because I wanted to see where he was conditioning-wise and get to know him a little bit. When I saw the way he came in and I saw the way he worked, and we had our first conversation, I pretty much knew. And I worked him out, so I felt like ‘OK, this guy has a great capacity for work, he has the ability to concentrate, he’s in great shape and you start there. He’s been tremendous. I’ve said it many times: he’s our engine. He’s been a great leader right from the start, and he’s growing. He’s still getting better.”
Thibodeau had seen that kind of leadership before. Ewing was the engine of Van Gundy’s Knicks teams. He was at Van Gundy’s side, having a courtside view of Ewing terrorizing the league. It can be argued he was the best player in the Eastern Conference, not named Michael Jordan during his time. And that also didn’t happen by accident, even though Ewing was gifted with the size and talent.
“I can recall back in the ’90s when I first arrived here as an assistant, the thing that blew me away was Patrick Ewing every morning in the offseason he was the first guy in the building,” Thibodeau said. “He worked like crazy. He got himself ready, and the rest of the team did the same. That’s leadership. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. When you see an example like that it gives you confidence and it gives the team confidence.”
Randle was just five years old when Ewing led the Knicks’ improbable run to the NBA Finals in 1999. Ewing was already a decade removed from the league when Randle rose into a future NBA lottery pick in Dallas.
Randle wasn’t into Ewing. He grew up in Kobe Bryant’s era. He played with the Los Angeles Lakers legend who patterned his game after Jordan, Ewing’s tormentor.
But on his quest for his own greatness, moving from West to East, Randle finds himself having to hold up to the standard of the former Knicks great.
“It’s amazing,” Randle said when he was told of Thibodeau’s Ewing comparison. “I’ve asked him to talk about that before. He kinda gave me insight into what he saw first-hand. I pride myself on my work ethic. The greats, they did that before. The guy I idolized the most, the guy I look up to, is Kobe (Bryant). His work ethic was top-notch. There’s nobody better at putting the time in than him.”
Randle learned from one of the greatest in LA. He also yearns to learn from one of the best players ever to set foot in New York through the lens of Thibodeau.
The Knicks never had the luck of the draw again to find a franchise-changing player like Ewing. Their constant chase for stars that never came made them the league’s laughingstock and meme.
They always settled for the next best available talent but never panned out in New York.
As their targeted stars — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — shunned them again two summers ago, they had Randle as a consolation.
Consolation was even an exaggeration at that time as media and fans alike frowned upon the three-year, $63-million signing of Randle.
But little did they know, what they had could be their next Ewing.
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo